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Thumbnail image for student16_5563.jpg Kendall College senior Marco Bahena won the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef competition in Napa Valley over the weekend, beating out nine other culinary students for the title.

Bahena, 21, a Vernon Hills native, gets $10,000 and a yearlong paid apprenticeship with one of the chef judges of his choosing (who include luminaries such as Michel Richard and Chicago's own Tony Mantuano).

Bahena's dish, a Mediterranean lamb loin, also won in the Signature Dish category -- which puts an additional $3,000 in his wallet.

For the competition, Bahena recreated his dish from the Chicago regionals, but instead of making six full portions for judges, he had to make 200 tasting portions.

Bahena says he hasn't decided yet which chef he'll work for, though he adds, "I will say I plan on taking the opportunity to go work outside of Chicago for a while and come back with a whole new set of knowledge."

[photo courtesy S. Pellegrino]

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Chicago pastry chef Jacquy Pfeiffer makes his big-screen debut Friday in "Kings of Pastry," premiering at 5 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State.

In 2007, a documentary film crew trailed Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago's French Pastry School, as he competed in Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition. At stake: the prestigious title of Best Craftsman in France, or M.O.F.

It was the first time cameras were allowed in to the three-day competition, which takes place every three to four years.

Pfeiffer had no problem mentally shutting out the cameras. "Whenever you're competing, you don't think about anything else. You don't even go to the bathroom for 10 hours," he says.

Pfeiffer has no problems multi-tasking. He spoke to me by phone as he blow-torched a sugar sculpture to bring for his appearance tomorrow on "Good Morning America." He also was finishing a chocolate sculpture in the shape of a giant film reel, which will be on display at Friday's Chicago premiere.

Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker come to this project having done the documentaries "The War Room" about President Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, and "Don't Look Back," about singer Bob Dylan's 1965 concert tour of England.

Different topics, same message: "It's about people taking a risk," Hegedus says.

There's another Chicago connection to the project: Flora Lazar of Flora Confections, a friend of the filmmakers from her days living in New York, first suggested Pfeiffer and the M.O.F. competition as a possible film subject. Lazar was studying at the French Pastry School at the time.

How did Pfeiffer fare in the competition? The answer is out there, but let's not ruin it, shall we? See for yourself. "Kings of Pastry" runs through Oct. 7; go to siskelfilmcenter.org for the schedule and tickets. Here's a taste:

KINGS OF PASTRY Theatrical Trailer from Pennebaker Hegedus Films on Vimeo.

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Because we seem to have hit a lull in bacon-themed events...

A Chicago Bacon Takedown has been announced for Sept. 11 at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln.

This is not to be confused with Baconfest Chicago, which is ramping up for its second annual tasting in the spring with a series of all-bacon dinners featuring Nueske bacon. The first is Sept. 13 at Chalkboard, 4343 N. Lincoln, and it's already sold out.

While Baconfest and its satellite dinners are chef-focused and meant to showcase what top toques can do with everyone's favorite pork product -- April's Baconfest drew 1,000 people, and organizers are looking to hold the 2011 event at either Navy Pier or the UIC Forum -- the Takedowns are strictly home cook affairs (and sponsored by Hormel Bacon). The cost to attend is $15.

According to Takedown organizer Matt Timms, a Brooklyn actor and filmmaker who hosts these in his spare time, the event -- from 1 to 3 p.m. -- is open to amateur cooks with bacon recipes they feel are extraordinary.

"I've always celebrated the amateur cook," says Timms, 36, who says he falls squarely in that category. "It's just a really fun, incredibly unpretentious event. People come and get to try 20 different bacon recipes."

Seven years ago, Timms was just another chili-cooking Brooklynite. He felt his chili had some potential, so he joined the International Chili Society. But he found their contests to be a bit too restrictive. "I thought, why not do a no-rules event?' " he says. The Chili Takedown was born.

Timms has since hosted takedowns for everything from cookies to curry to fondue. The Bacon Takedown is part of a six-city national tour. Depending on how this goes, he'd like to return to Chicago for a Tofu Takedown.

Those interested in competing should email Timms at mtimms7@hotmail.com. What's in it for you? A year's supply of bacon. Tickets to the September Takedown can be had here.

Meanwhile, keep on top of Baconfest happenings here.

"The more, the merrier," says Andre Pluess, one of Baconfest's founders. "People call bacon a fad ... The Beatles were a fad, and they came and they went, but their music lives on. And people keep coming back to the Beatles year after year after year.

"We feel that way about bacon."

Useless tidbits picked up from helping judge today's Country Chef Challenge, an Iron-chef like contest, in Daley Plaza: (and congratulations to Blackbird pastry chef Patrick Fahy, crowned Master of the Market):

Fellow judge and WLS personality Roe Conn has a martini AND a hot dog named after him at Harry Caray's.

Channel 2 meteorologist Steve Baskerville, who emceed the event, is not on Twitter or Facebook, and probably never will be, he detests it so.

And fellow judge -- and food truck chef of the moment -- Matt Maroni has nicknamed his Gaztro-Wagon "Dorothy."

One useful bit:
Piccolo Sogno chef Tony Priolo is organizing another fundraiser for bartender Shawn Koch, a brunch on Aug. 28. Priolo's restaurant isn't usually open for Saturday brunch, but all his staff will work for free. Koch is battling a rare brain cancer. Proceeds from tonight's Speakeasy Throwback at the Palmer House Hilton will go toward Koch's foundation.

Remember that chef's challenge I wrote about recently, put on by Supreme Lobster and involving the decidedly unsexy rainbow trout?

Well, the results are in and ... it's a tie between Sepia's Andrew Zimmerman and Curtis Duffy of Avenues.

The prize: $500 or a trip to the Idaho farm of Clear Springs Foods, which sponsored this particular contest. Duffy is taking the cash (the thought of leaving the restaurant on a workday doesn't sit well with him); haven't heard from Zimmerman but Supreme's Carl Galvan, who orchestrates these contests, was pretty sure he was taking the trip.

Both chefs will get to judge the next chef challenge featuring a different fish so look for those details on Supreme Lobster's site.

And look for the Duffy's dish on the menu in some form when the days start to cool down. "I have already started to infuse 20 liters of olive oil with spruce branches and needles to slow poach the trout," he says.

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photo courtesy Louisa Chu

How do you make rainbow trout sexy?

One idea: Give it to Curtis Duffy at Avenues, who'll have a go not once, but twice -- poached in olive oil until it's buttah, and whipped into brandade -- then plated with fennel in every possible form, dabs of a fennel-y mustard and an absinthe foam.

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This was what Duffy plied us with earlier this week (in addition to fennel chips, king crab by the spoonful and other delights). "Us": Lockwood's blogging chef Phillip Foss, writer/chef/expert palate Louisa Chu and moi. We'd been solicited as judges for a contest put on by Villa Park-based Supreme Lobster, whose main monger Carl Galvan you might recognize from his funny, sometimes vulgar Twitter feed.

Our task (that's stretching it) was to judge a dish at each of the three chef-finalist's restaurants featuring trout from Clear Springs Farm in Idaho. We were driven from Point A (Pops for Champagne and chef Chris Walker's trout with a deconstructed meuniere) to Point B (Sepia and chef Andrew Zimmerman's pave of trout with an almond and Iberico ham picada) to Point C, the aforementioned Avenues.

While it was a lovely evening of exquisite food and conversation (about food trucks, Twitter, Chicago Gourmet, maltodextrin, food trucks, Foss' burning desire to write a memoir and food trucks), it all went back to making trout -- fish, period -- sexy. Galvan knows a fine fish when he sees it, and the sustainably raised trout from Clear Springs is about as pure as it gets. There is method to Galvan's madness, after all. photo[1].jpg

He tweets to sell more fish (he also tweets while driving, but that's another story; and while we're at it, that's Foss tweeting at right). He holds these contests so that Jennifer Mulhern, regional sales manager for Clear Springs and our tablemate for the evening, can sell more fish.

"Rainbow trout is your grandmother's fish," said Mulhern (in between wide-eyed bites of trout and genuinely amazed outbursts of, "I never knew trout could taste like that!") "We're trying to figure out how to get people to think differently about it."

This was the third such chef's challenge Galvan has organized (Foss won the previous scallop contest). The prize is $500 or a trip to the Idaho farm.

Galvan will announce the winner next week.

photo by Louisa Chu

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Here you go, folks: The winner of our first ever Food Photo Contest is ... Sharlene King and her simply delectable chicken sandwich!

King, 27, is an Andersonville resident and a techie by day who works in digital design. She (kind of) maintains a blog and last year went to the casting call for "Masterchef," the Fox show in development starring Gordon Ramsay and Chicago's Graham Elliot Bowles. She made salmon and grouper with an arugula salad for the judges. "I guess I didn't pass muster," she says blithely.

King made this sandwich last summer to use up some farmers market produce she had, including sugar snap peas she'd pickled herself and freeze-dried shallots from the Spice House on Wells. For all you camera geeks, hers for this shot was a 2003 Sony Mavica. "Not even a digital SLR. It uses a CD instead of a card. It's not old-school, it's just old," she says.

"That sandwich does it," said our guest judge, culinary photographer Stephen Hamilton. "It's not perfect."

Click here to see our four talented finalists, and here for the other entries. And thanks to all who played the game. What do you think -- should we do this again sometime?

And while we're (or, rather, you're) at it with this whole taking pictures of food thing, this just popped in our inbox: Food52, one of the more creative Web-based foodie concepts out there now not to mention a prolific recipe generator, is holding a travel food photo contest! Way more rules than ours, but those prizes are pretty cool.

You have until the end of today to enter the Sun-Times Food Photo Contest! A reminder: photos have to be of something you cooked, not a dish you ordered in a restaurant, however lovely it may appear.

Thanks to all who have sent in entries so far. There are some beauts. This one gave us the biggest chuckle:

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These are making us hungry:
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The winners will be announced in next week's Food pages. There are some lovely cookbooks in it for four lucky shutterbugs. And, for the grand prize winner: a day-in-the-life-of-food-pornographer-Stephen-Hamilton experience.

Got an email the other day from the Bravo pr team reminding me to watch "Top Chef Masters" as our own Tony Mantuano is still in it to win it.

"It's now between him and four other chefs to determine who will be crowned Top Chef Masters in finale," the email read.

Er, wait -- isn't it between him and six other chefs? Though math isn't our strong suit (which is why we chose this profession - bah dum bum), we can do simple addition. The champions round just started last week with the eight finalists. Chef Carmen Gonzalez go the boot. That leaves seven.

We sent an e-mail back.

Her reply: "Sorry-that was a typo-him and SIX other chefs. I don't even know who wins so I couldn't let you know what the future holds, even if I wanted to! I intentionally DON'T find out the outcome because that knowledge is like a loaded gun :-)"

Mmm, hmm. At the least, that knowledge has been known to piss off viewers who hate spoilers.

Also, there seems to be a pattern of cheftestants who host viewing parties doing pretty well. And yes, there will be one at Spiaggia at 8:30 tonight - prosecco, sweets and a $20 donation to benefit Mantuano's charity.

Watch Mantuano advance, or maybe not, but probably, at 9 tonight on Bravo.

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OK, eaters, you have one more week to enter our first ever Food Photo Contest.

Check out our site here for the entries that have come in thus far. (Those are homemade Oreos above, shot by one Katie Mays of Chicago. Mmmm, homemade Oreos.)

This is your competition. Study, size up, assess. Then: cook something, make it look pretty, photograph it and submit it at suntimes.com/win. You can enter up to three photos.

Grand prize is a half-day watching culinary photographer Stephen Hamilton work (there will probably be noshing involved; there is always food in his studio). He's the real deal. Four second-prize winners will get cookbooks.

Deadline to enter is May 12.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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